Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

90. Peak Oil and the Commercial Syndrome

Note: This post is the ninetieth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

I guess it took a little longer to get back to the blog than I was expecting, due to post-vacation fatigue and busy-ness. It will be a short post this week as well, as I work my way back into the blogging flow.

While I was away, I was thinking about the relationship between energy supplies and the commercial syndrome. There is certainly causality in one direction as the innovation inherent in the 'Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism' unlocked the energy in first coal, and then oil (not to mention natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, etc.), as western civilization leaped ahead of the rest of the world in technological progress and material standards of living (i.e. comfort and convenience).

But what about the other direction? What if innovation fails in the face of our current energy requirements and the amount of energy available per person starts to decline for the first time in a number of decades/centuries?

The commercial syndrome is based around win-win transactions, but to keep the engine of trade and innovation going, new inputs are always needed. It seems logical to me that the commercial syndrome will flourish most when energy inputs are rising and economic growth is strong. In these circumstances, people are less concerned about distribution and more concerned with just improving their own lot.

But if I consider my limited knowledge of the history of civilization, the current strength of the commercial syndrome seems like a bit of an anomaly, with the guardian syndrome dominant in most times past (although part of that may just be that the guardians wrote more stuff down about themselves and built bigger monuments and so on).

I'd always figured that, even if we struggle to find enough oil or replacements for oil to avoid a downturn in our energy consumption, there's so much inefficiency in our economy that we should be able to manage reasonably well just by not wasting so much energy. But I worry that in an energy downturn, there will be less of a sense that all boats can ride a rising tide, and there may be a tendency to revert to guardian-style battles over distribution of the no longer rising tide of pies.

Looking at the rise in inequality and drop-off in wage increases that occurred in most Western countries around the time of the first oil crises in the 70's, it's possible that we've already been in this situation to some extent for decades now.

Anyway, this is just a train of thought and I certainly wouldn't come to any conclusions based on it, but I do worry that if we can't continually increase our energy consumption, we'll run into serious political problems that will aggravate what would otherwise be manageable energy issues. Certainly our non-response to the threat of climate change doesn't offer much reason for optimism in terms of how well we will deal with any sort of limitations on our insatiable quest for comfort and convenience.

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